Rabbits – Unique and Familiar by Kathleen-Marie Clark, DVM
Rabbits make fascinating pets and patients. They are simultaneously tough and fragile. They are called “exotic” pets, but the wild version lives in our own back yards. Gastrointestinal problems are common in pet rabbits, both as primary disease and secondary to stress, pain, and other medical issues. With appropriate diet and an understanding of their unique anatomy and physiology, many incidents can be avoided.
It is important to know how rabbits differ from humans, dogs, and cats. Their stomachs can’t stretch, and they can’t vomit. That means they are lacking defenses that we have if we eat something inappropriate. Our digestion takes place in the stomach and the small intestine (upper GI); theirs, in the large cecum (lower GI) via microbial fermentation. They produce two distinct types of stool – the typical hard dry balls we see in the day time, and unique creations called cecotropes – squishy, pea-sized concoctions passed only at night and immediately eaten by the rabbit, giving them a second pass through for absorption of nutrients.
The recommended diet for adult rabbits consists of free choice, good quality timothy hay that provides the fiber needed for the fermentation process to function; fresh green vegetables, and very small amounts of pellets. It is important to avoid the carbohydrates found in popular rabbit treats such as cereal and popcorn, as these can produce painful gas.
Rabbits spend all day nibbling. If your rabbit stops eating, you should seek medical attention immediately. Diarrhea is also a very serious symptom. A rabbit that is not passing stool is usually not constipated – he is probably not eating much.
An excellent resource is the website of the House Rabbit Connection, Inc., a non-profit rescue group (hopline.org). You can find nutritional information in their Rabbit Care Guide. And on Youtube, you can find me presenting a lecture on the Basics of the Rabbit Gastrointestinal Tract.
Kathleen-Marie Clark, DVM is an associate veterinarian at Companion Animal Hospital. She has a special interest in the medical care of rabbits, guinea pigs, and other pocket pets.
Companion Animal Hospital(860) 449-9800